In celebration of my bat mitzvah, my family traveled to Israel and embarked upon a tour of the City of David, an archaeological site in Jerusalem that contains remnants of a typical ancient Israelite house and what is believed to be the palace of King David, who ruled in the 10th century B.C.E. We walked through the nearby Southern Excavations, where I felt the Bible come alive as the texts I had read manifested themselves in structural forms: the purifying bathing installments for the priests and temple visitors, the marketplace where sacrificial animals could be purchased, stones inscribed with biblical references written in Hebrew.
That particular tour was apropos when I was "coming of age" and becoming an independent member of the Jewish nation, as the era of the excavations embodied the peak of Jewish national and religious history.
Obviously, my minimal studies in no way made me an expert on Israeli archaeological efforts. They did, however, make it plain and simple to me that Jewish connections to the land of Israel are the crux of Jewish national history and religious life.
So when Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj asserts in her book, Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, that ancient Jewish presence in the land of Israel is not a matter of history but a mere "belief" and "a tale or historical myth," I cannot help but cringe at what I feel is an attack on Judaism. Denying Israelite connection to the land dismantles Judaism as a religion, a nation, and a culture.
So while I cannot argue on an archaeological basis with Abu El-Haj, I can recognize that her denial of ancient Jewish history is much more than a controversial and revisionist thesis. Legitimate historical revisionists modify historical theories or alter the cause or implication of some historical event. Abu El-Haj, however, simply erases solid historical evidence by omitting and distorting accepted notions. In Facts on the Ground, she includes quotes from anonymous individuals who were allegedly involved in major Israeli archaeological digs, which then come off sounding like articles of second-hand gossip. "One archaeologist told me," she wrote, "of a right-wing colleague who was constantly labeling Christian sites Jewish." No footnote or evidence supports this alleged quotation. And what does she mean by "labeling" a site Jewish or Christian? Additionally, she attacks one of Israel's most respected and world-renowned archaeologists, David Ussishkin. The fact that she has actually participated in only a few digs—a critique commonly made by those opposing her tenure—becomes evident in her ignorance regarding how archaeology works and has caused many archaeologists to dismiss her work as weightless.
Furthermore, her work is subject to a double standard. While she censures Israeli archaeologists for fabricating history, she offers sympathetic understanding to Palestinians who actually destroy it: in 2000, a Palestinian mob destroyed Joseph's tomb, which is regarded among Israelis as a holy site. Abu El-Haj condoned the destruction.
In addition, her claim that Jewish attachment to the land of Israel is historical myth completely denies the basis and validity of Christianity. If, as Abu El-Haj wrote, "Jerusalem was not a Jewish city," to whom and where did Jesus preach?
Would a reputable university like Columbia offer tenure to someone whose work deconstructs Jewish history and basic Judaic premises as a whole? Perhaps, if that someone had outstanding and comprehensive evidence to support this radically new and divergent idea. If the evidence were shoddy and the research the source of much academic criticism, one would think that tenure would not even be a consideration. What, then, is the impetus—the justification, even—for offering tenure to Professor Abu El-Haj, whose one book that seeks to dismantle Judaism has been criticized by a considerable number of academics for lacking in academic integrity? Yet critical studies discussing Israeli nationalism's use or misuse of archaeology are nothing novel. Several scholars, including Yael Zerubavel, have already written on this topic in analytical studies of archaeology taken far more seriously than those of Abu El-Haj.
In her effort to disassociate Israelite past from the land of Israel and thereby deconstruct fundamental concepts in Judaic history and culture, Abu El-Haj is vague, unsupported, hypocritical, and certainly undeserving of commendation. That Columbia would even consider awarding Nadia Abu El-Haj with tenure is more than astonishing.